An ultra effort for mental health in New Zealand

An ultra effort for mental health in New Zealand

Scott Wilson, our General Manager of Operations is about to undertake a challenge that for many, would be the most extreme of a lifetime. But he’s doing it to show that not all challenges are physical, and to help the Mental Health Foundation support other people doing it tough. Thanks to his mammoth effort, many others stand to benefit – just as we have from working alongside him. We’re grateful to Scott for his generosity in sharing his experience so openly.

We’d like to note that this article touches on grief and child loss as part of Scott’s mental health journey. If these are difficult topics for you, please take care.

In under a month’s time our GM Operations will be in the midst of the toughest pain imaginable. He’s running the Southern Lakes Ultra, a six-stage ultra marathon spread over seven days in which he’ll cover over 250 km and 8000m of elevation. On the longest day he’ll have to run 70 km in a single stage, scrambling over remote and unforgiving alpine terrain in the backcountry of Queenstown with only his mind and fellow competitors for company.

This is clearly not a race for the faint-hearted which is exactly why it appeals to Scott, a Scotsman who is most at home in the outdoors. “When I was a kid I would fill a backpack with sandwiches and juice and head off for the day to the local hills,” he says. The mountains hit me when I could drive and I saw the opportunities from the road side. I walked and ran in the Scottish mountains but I never partook in any events or considered myself a ‘runner’.”

While pushing one’s body to its absolute limit can be the drawcard for some ultrarunners, it was a different kind of pain that first led Scott to ultrarunning events.

Nine years ago, his baby son Charlie passed away after just ten weeks of life, following two open-heart surgeries to fix a congenital heart condition. It was absolutely shattering for Scott and his family. “I coped by being the strong one and dealing with the day-to-day stuff. However, I never dealt with the grief. I don’t talk about things. I’d change the subject. Deflection. Anything to bury my head in the sand.”

He went through the motions of grieving but wasn’t entirely honest about how things were really going. “I went to the counsellor and told her everything she needed to hear to tell me I was doing really well. Clearly I wasn’t ready. I had no strategies and kept telling myself and everyone else “I’m fine.”

He began seriously running after being quietly entered in the Alps 2 Ocean Ultra, something a loved one thought might help his deteriorating mental health. Despite a lack of motivation, anticipation of the event drew him through it.
For those unfamiliar with ultrarunning events, the Alps 2 Ocean is not exactly what you’d call a warm up event. It was New Zealand’s first staged ultra marathon event where entrants ran the length of the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle, from Mt Cook to our hometown of Ōamaru – right past some of Topflite’s pastures too. Just a cool 323 km over seven days to launch a new running hobby? Not a problem for Scott, even though his motivation to train was at an all-time low and was compounded by an injury.

“I had a very flawed theory on these events. They are big challenges and if I train I’m just making the challenge easier right? Really, that was a joking way of hiding the fact that I struggle to motivate myself and procrastinate too much and dream up ways of not training. I find it hard.”

He ran anyway and the experience was harrowing, to say the least. He developed tendonitis in both feet and ankles early in the race but carried on. The 30°C heat was another force to reckon with (especially for a cold-loving Scotsman!) and took its toll. After experiencing the impact of dehydration including vomiting and hallucinations of animals on the side of the trail – “meerkats, horses and elephants, if I remember correctly” – Scott was pulled from the race by doctors.

“I lay on my back, feet elevated, beanie over my face and tears streaming down my face. I saw it as a failure and it troubled me for way longer than it should have. I thought about it most days. It was hard to take the positives from it at first.”
Nevertheless, he was back two years later, this time for the Southern Lakes Ultra which he completed with the support of old friends and new ones gained on the course. 

“I’m not sure where the strength comes from and we have no idea how we will cope until we are in the situation that tests us. Whether it was Charlie and his struggles or a multi day ultra there is something that is awoken inside. If there is strength and determination lurking inside, it comes out.”

The wider challenge, Scott says, is trying to utilise the mental toughness from ultra events in life’s other challenges. “There’s no place to hide. No way you can stick your head in the sand.” Scott is interested in how he could apply strategies for getting through the tough physical stuff to everyday challenges around mental health.

That’s why this year, Scott is running the Southern Ultra again with a new purpose – to raise a sizable donation for the Mental Health Foundation. Their mission is to see a society where all people enjoy positive mental health and wellbeing, which is one Scott (and Topflite) can really get behind.

“I want people to seek help as soon as they think there may be an issue and work to improve their mental health. I also want people to know that these challenges in life or events bring out things inside us we don’t know exist.” 

We are so proud of Scott’s commitment to sharing his mental health journey and keeping the conversation open through his fundraising page. If you’d like to support Scott and the Mental Health Foundation, donations can be made at the following link: